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Assessing the wisdom of welfare reform // We are callously giving up on a serious problem

President Clinton's decision to sign the bill ending the national commitment to help poor children has been widely described as a political watershed, a Democrat turning away from the New Deal. It is that, but it signals something more: a change in basic American attitudes.

Optimism and generosity have been the hallmarks of the American character. We could solve any problem, bear any burden together: a can-do society.

The welfare bill is the opposite. Out of pessimism or indifference, it abandons the effort to solve a profound social problem. For generosity it substitutes callousness.

That our welfare system needs rethinking is accepted now by most people, liberal or conservative. Instead of the emergency help envisaged when the program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children was created in 1935, it has become a way of life for millions. There IS a culture of dependency. But the new welfare legislation hardly even pretends to deal with real problems. It simply passes the buck to the states, gives them reduced block grants and assumes that they will do better with less money.

Consider the question of work, for example. The bill cuts off benefits if a family head does not go to work in two years. Everyone agrees that welfare recipients should work if they can. But everyone also knows that mothers on welfare cannot work unless they have help on child care and medical needs _ help that will cost government more, not less. The much-applauded welfare plan of Gov. Tommy Thompson, R-Wis., meets those needs. The new federal legislation does not.

"It helps to build their self-esteem and puts them to work," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Fla., and author of the bill. Sure. A young mother with no work experience and no child care will find a job at once.

What the legislation will do is victimize poor children. Its "fearsome assumption," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., is that "the behavior of certain adults can be changed by making the lives of their children as wretched as possible." He predicted that the bill will force hundreds of thousands of children to live on the streets _ "children on grates, because there is no money in the states and cities to care for them."

Some argue that welfare is an incentive to teenagers to have children, so cutting it would help cure another serious social problem: the growing number of children born to unmarried mothers. But once again it is wishful thinking without substance. Welfare payments have in fact dropped in recent years without slowing the rise in teenage births. And other Western societies, with different welfare systems, are experiencing the same phenomenon.

The truth is that we do not understand these ills afflicting our society, and we do not have solutions for them. So in a piece of legislation like the welfare bill we act in ignorance and frustration. Feeling resentful, we act punitively.

The bill is full of gratuitous meanness. It cuts hard at food stamps, for example, assuring that more people in this rich country will go hungry.

President Clinton said he did not like some provisions of the bill. But he agreed to it for the reason that we all know: politics. And that is the really troubling part of this episode. For it tells us that the American public, which Clinton wants to please, is feeling mean, resentful, ungenerous.

The welfare bill is not the only sign of this change in the old American spirit. The increasingly punitive character of our criminal law and the legislative attacks on immigrants are among others.

But there is something especially troubling about the victimization of children, for they will grow up to haunt our society. Some day more Americans will agree with what Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., told his colleagues as the welfare bill passed: "Where is the sense of decency? What does it profit a great nation to conquer the world, only to lose its soul?"

New York Times News Service